Author Archive: Jen Kinney

New Orleans Reaffirms It’s Illegal to Throw Things at Cyclists

Biking in New Orleans (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Last week, in an effort to bring city code in line with state law, New Orleans City Council passed a slate of largely procedural ordinances that are nonetheless garnering attention for their commonsense proscriptions.

The new rules clarify that pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks, explicitly forbid motorists from driving in designated bike lanes, require that a person opening a car door in the roadway take “due precaution” not to endanger another road user, and set a 3-foot passing distance between vehicles and bikes. The ordinance most likely to raise eyebrows, though, is one clarifying that it is illegal to “harass, taunt, or maliciously throw objects” at bicyclists.

Dan Favre, executive director of cycling advocacy group Bike Easy, says that while the ordinances are nothing new — most of these laws were already on state books — it’s still important that the council reaffirm what constitutes good behavior.

“Just from biking around New Orleans the past 10-plus years, things have gotten better, but there certainly is a level of harassment. People honk at you, things like that,” he says. He’s got no lack of stories. After he spoke about the new ordinances on television recently, a cameraman told Favre he’d had a soda can thrown at him while biking just the other day. Another friend was smacked on the behind by a passing driver.

“In my mind it’s weird because it’s still just assault in that case, but they needed to really codify the idea that you’re not allowed to taunt or harass cyclists,” says Favre. “It’s crazy that we have to write that into law, but it speaks a bit to the schizophrenic nature of biking here in New Orleans. Because biking here is fantastic – it’s flat … you don’t have to go too far to get where you’re going in most places, the weather is good for it in most cases. It’s a joy. But on the other hand we have high instances of injuries and deaths of people walking and biking, and sometimes there’s these crazy events, people get harassed while biking along.”

New Orleans, of course, isn’t alone. Such harassment is common enough that in her 2016 book, “Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation,” Emilie Bahr dedicated a section to dealing with taunts. She wrote:

I think that one of the best ways to improve driver behavior is to simply ride a bike and encourage others to do so too. This may seem overly simplistic, with a frustratingly incremental payoff, but getting more people biking on the streets will over time make drivers more accustomed to anticipating and looking out for cyclists. It also improves the likelihood that drivers are themselves cyclists, and every cyclist I know who gets into a driver’s seat is much more understanding, aware, and patient than your average motorist.

Favre doesn’t expect the New Orleans ordinances to solve the problem on their own, not even with increased enforcement. “Our police department has been understaffed for years, and levels of traffic citations have just plummeted for the past few years across the board,” he says. “And I don’t think that enforcement is a panacea or necessary even all that helpful in terms of what we’re trying to do.”

He does think they send a signal that the culture is changing. With more people biking, he thinks, peace on the streets will improve, with some nudging. The city has installed over 100 miles of bike lanes in the past 10 years, and a $2.4 billion federal settlement owed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could radically improve street conditions (if President Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t renege on the deal). Social rides take place nearly every night of the week, giving cyclists power in numbers against both bad motorist behavior and potential abuse.

The new ordinances do clarify some cyclist behavior too. They prohibit cyclists from riding more than two abreast on city streets and require that they install lights, reflectors and brakes.

Portland to Tap Wastewater Plant for Fueling City Vehicles

Portland’s Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant (Photo by Eli Duke, via Flickr)

For about a decade, most of the methane generated by decomposing sewage at Portland’s wastewater treatment plant has been captured and used to create both heat and electricity, contributing nearly 40 percent of the plant’s electricity needs.

By the end of 2018, the methane will now be used to create renewable natural gas, a fuel source chemically identical to extracted natural gas, which can be used to power vehicles in its compressed form. City council approved the idea in early April, and the city plans to install a fueling station at the wastewater treatment plant to power city vehicles, and to sell fuel to outside fleets. The Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) estimates it can produce 100,000 to 340,000 decatherms of natural gas per year, enough to fuel 154 garbage trucks, for example. The goal is to convert or replace vehicles currently running on diesel, a major culprit in both air pollution and carbon emissions.

“We’re taking 100 percent of our waste methane, recovering it for use as renewable natural gas, specifically to replace dirty diesel,” says Diane Dulken, public information officer for the BES. “And those three coupled together are really essential, because together they create the largest climate benefit, the largest revenue benefit, and the largest clean air benefit.”

Currently, the plant only utilizes 77 percent of the methane emitted there, either to create electricity or to sell to a nearby manufacturer. The remaining 23 percent is “flared,” or burned off, releasing carbon dioxide. Dulken says the renewable natural gas proposal was inspired by two questions: “How do we solve for that 23 percent?” and “How do we get the highest environmental value for the work we do, and turn our waste treatment plant into a resource recovery operation?”

After implementation, the plant will capture and reuse 100 percent of the methane, which is produced by the bacteria that breaks down solid waste. The methane will be treated and compressed onsite, and then fed into existing natural gas infrastructure through a partnership with the city’s utility, Northwest Natural Gas.

Because renewable natural gas fetches a higher market price than extracted natural gas — thanks largely to state and federal programs designed to encourage domestic fuel production — the plan is to use the majority of the fuel for vehicles, and begin to purchase natural gas for the plant’s electricity generation.

“We’ll be getting a much better revenue diverting it to vehicle use versus using it for electricity,” says Paul Suto, supervising engineer at BES. “People assume since we’re flaring the gas it must be free, but really it’s a commodity now that can be used to generate power, that can be used to generate heat, it can be used to offset natural gas and CNG and other vehicle fuels. It has a face value, so to speak.”

Though the necessary plant prep work won’t be done till end of 2018, the city is aiming to install the natural gas fueling station by the end of this year to encourage city departments to convert or replace vehicles to run on compressed natural gas as soon as possible. Suto says this solves the chicken-or-egg problem of vehicles or fueling infrastructure first.

The city is also working with an outside partner to sell the renewable natural gas to other Portland fleets, like independent waste haulers and airport shuttles. Using credits from those state and federal domestic energy programs, partnering organizations could choose to install their own natural gas fueling stations or use the city’s. Similar to programs that allow electricity customers to purchase solar or wind energy, consumers won’t be directly utilizing the renewable natural gas generated by the plant — it will be fed into the overall natural gas infrastructure, and consumers will pay a special rate for the renewable fuel.

Installing the new conversion technology and fueling station will cost around $9 million, while the city expects to earn $3 million to $10 million per year in revenue selling the fuel. The BES estimates the project will cut 21,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, both in methane that will no longer be released and in diesel that will be replaced. The city has called the effort Portland’s “single largest greenhouse gas reduction project to date.”

Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, called that claim into question in a recent article at Oregon Public Broadcasting, citing the city’s urban growth boundary and other policies as more transformative. BES stands by the statement, saying in terms of city of Portland operations, it’s the project with the single largest climate impact. And while Shandas would like to see further analysis to show definitively whether this investment will give the greatest climate bang for the buck, he says it’s a step in the right direction in terms of waste recapture.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is creating a circular economy,” he says. “Now we’re talking about, how to create circular economies with energy, how do we create circular economies with water, with building materials.”

He also says it’s an ideal time to be talking about reducing diesel emissions in Oregon, as the state decides how to spend $72.9 million garnered in a settlement with Volkswagen over their cheating on emissions tests.

How Should a City Go About Adding a New Museum?

“Bienvenidos a Arizona” mural in Phoenix (Photo by Chris English)

The city of Phoenix is considering opening a new Latino arts and culture center, but what exactly that means, where it might be located, and how it might sustain itself are all up for debate.

A group of city leaders and arts organizations have pushed for years to open a space dedicated to Latinos’ cultural contributions. Now, the city is considering using $1.4 million of bond funding originally approved by voters for the now-defunct Museo Chicano to make it a reality.

First though, a lot of questions: Do residents want a space for exhibition? Or for art-making? Will it only offer cultural resources? Or other services, like help with immigration law, that are relevant to the Latino community? Will it be a new building, or a retrofit of an existing one?

With the help of a consultant and input from three town halls and an online survey, the city is now trying to determine the answers to some of those questions. “When [the city] approached me they said, look this is an exploratory process,” says Evonne Gallardo, the California-based consultant who also serves on the National Board of Latino Arts and Culture. “Even though we are just starting to look at this possibility and everything is still in development, it was important to me that this very broad engagement happen, whatever the outcome might be.”

At the first town hall, held in mid-April and attended by about 100 arts administrators and community members, Gallardo says it was clear that residents want a place to make art, not just to see it.

“The growing trend is that people want to participate and engage in whatever art discipline that they like,” she says. “That’s what we heard at the first town hall. It was less about ‘I want to see this,’ and more, ‘I want to do this.’ We’ve also heard that this center should be multidisciplinary. It should be a flexible space, it should be an expansive space, so to speak, so really having the goal of inclusion in that broadest sense.” Over 41 percent of Phoenix residents identify as Latino, but those surveyed have said they want the space to welcome all.

Laura Wilde, executive director of Xico Arte y Cultura, a Phoenix-based Latino and indigenous arts organization, seconds that goal.

“Having a dedicated center would allow people from other backgrounds and cultures and religions and countries of origin to learn about this rich cultural heritage of the Latino and indigenous people,” Wilde says. The center is likely to overlap somewhat with Xico’s programming, but will serve a wider role, she says. Xico focuses mostly on printmaking and education, while the center may encompass a much broader array of disciplines. Wilde sits on an advisory committee giving input on the effort.

“People definitely want a lot from this center,” she says, reflecting on the first town hall. “The biggest thing I kept hearing over and over is accessibility.” People want bilingual services and afterschool programming for youth. Wilde was excited that, at the town hall, the city offered headphones to Spanish-speaking residents so they could listen to translations of Gallardo’s remarks in real time.

Another town hall was held on April 20; the third and final will be April 22, and in early May residents will be able to weigh in by online survey. After that, Gallardo will prepare three models for how the center might be built.

“Will it be construction from the ground up, will it be a rehabilitation with an existing building, or will it be a partnership with an existing development or developer?” Gallardo asks.

In the first town hall, she heard a strong desire for the center to be located downtown. Wilde says she heard excitement about the possibility of a brand-new space that would be recognizable as a cultural asset outside the city, like the distinctive design of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Arts have begun to drive development on Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row, a downtown arts district named a “Great Place in America” by the American Planning Association in 2015. Now condos and apartments are popping up along Roosevelt. “I think that’s evidence that’s showing the arts are driving economic growth down here,” says Wilde, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs and has watched the arts scene burgeon in recent years.

She sees a need for the new cultural center, but still has some questions about it: Will it provide additional services relevant to the Latino community, or stick to arts and culture? And how will it work with existing arts groups?

“I would like to know what the city or what the consultant is thinking in terms of proposed partnerships with these Latino arts and culture organizations, like Xico, that already exist. How can we work together? Because I think especially right now, we need to work together,” she says.

How the center would support itself must also be resolved. The $1.4 million bond would be used to launch it, but the goal is for financial independence. Gallardo says she’s exploring multiple options, from a traditional nonprofit model to a more entrepreneurial approach, but the details haven’t been worked out.

Gallardo expects to complete her feasibility study and capital needs review in June.

Bed-Stuy Is Going From Low Ridership to Bike-Share Boom

Kweli Campbell leading a community Citi Bike ride in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn (Photo courtesy of Kweli Campbell)

When Citi Bike rolled out across New York City in 2013, its eastern edge was Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and one where home values are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the United States. On the western side of the neighborhood, where the first wave of the system’s bike-share stations appeared, home values have nearly tripled since 2005.

But the stations didn’t reach the neighborhood’s east and north areas, where five large and several smaller public housing complexes are located. They didn’t extend south to Crown Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood experiencing rising rents and rapid displacement, or southeast to Brownsville or East New York, neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and public housing. So while New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing residents were entitled to discounted memberships from bike-share’s launch in NYC, and while the neighborhood has high rates of diet- and activity-related diseases, and while the city’s DOT had worked with community development organization Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration on choosing sites for the first stations, ridership in Bed-Stuy remained well below the citywide average.

To many in the neighborhood, the bikes, and all the health and transportation benefits they represented, were harbingers of gentrification, and not intended for the long-standing communities of color where they were placed.

Four years later, bike-share is seeing growth in Bed-Stuy. In 2016, the number of Citi Bike rides and memberships increased faster there than in the city as a whole. The number of NYCHA residents with memberships increased faster in Brooklyn than citywide, and faster still in Bed-Stuy. According to a new report by Restoration, a Brooklyn-based community development organization, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Bed-Stuy saw 225 percent more Citi Bike trips in June 2016 than in June 2015.

What changed? Expansions in 2015 and 2016 increased the number of stations and bikes in Bed-Stuy (though not in Crown Heights, or East New York, or Brownsville), especially near the public housing on the northern end. But more than that, Restoration dedicated itself to a three-year mission of changing the culture and conversation about bike-share.

“We knew that [Citi Bike] wasn’t necessarily received widely,” says Tracey Capers, Restoration’s executive vice president for programs. “We knew that it was pretty misunderstood, but what we thought was, wouldn’t it be powerful if we could use bike-share to change the neighborhood conversation and show how it could be a useful tool in supporting residents in achieving their goals.”

Goals like getting to work and school, increasing physical activity and, especially, bridging gaps in a transportation desert. The public housing on Bed-Stuy’s north side has spotty public transportation access, and all of Brooklyn suffers from poor north-to-south connections. A bike can shrink a 45-minute ride on a tangle of subway and bus lines from Sumner Houses in Bed-Stuy to the Prospect Park farmers market into a single, 22-minute ride.

But before Restoration could increase ridership, the organization had to find out why residents hadn’t signed up already. Restoration partnered with Citi Bike operator Motivate and the NYC Departments of Transportation and Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a series of surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one stakeholder conversations.

They found that among 230 surveyed residents, 87 percent had heard of Citi Bike and 74 percent wanted a station near where they lived, but only 18 percent had used it. Though 36 percent had ridden a bike in the past year, 32 percent did not think Citi BIke was “intended for people like me.” When asked what would encourage them to buy an annual pass, 51 percent said they’d want docking stations in better places, 45 percent said they’d need to feel safer biking in the neighborhood, and 42 percent wanted more bike lanes. Thirty-five percent said they’d be more likely to sign up if they saw “other people like me using Citi Bike.”

Capers, herself a Citi Bike convert, says the latter was a barrier for her too. “I realized I personally had this perception that there weren’t a lot of people of color biking in Bed-Stuy and in Brooklyn,” she says. “People are more likely to be swayed or moved when they see themselves reflected in the issue or the project.”

So Restoration launched a series of events and marketing campaigns intended to broadcast the stories of riders of color and connect them with curious community members. These ambassadors led community rides from Bed-Stuy to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, wrote blog posts for Citi Bike’s website and were featured in Restoration’s #FreshMovesBKNY campaign. The ads touted the health benefits of biking, but also the material ones: an unlimited MetroCard costs $121 a month, compared to a Citi Bike membership of $163 a year. But for those eligible for discounted fares, an unlimited subway card is $60 a month — and Citi Bike membership is $60 a year.

Shaquana Boykin signed up for Citi Bike in the summer of 2015, when she learned that the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), where she works, was eligible to purchase discounted memberships for employees. Until a Restoration meeting where she heard that, she hadn’t known about the NYCHA discount either. But she says cost was only a secondary concern.

“I just literally didn’t know what those bikes were in front of my building,” she says, referring to the public housing complex where she lives. “I never went up to the station or anything.”

Shaquana Boykin (Credit: Better BikeShare Partnership)

When she worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, all of her coworkers biked. But Boykin, a Bed-Stuy native, assumed that was the kind of thing people did if they’d grown up elsewhere. “Maybe people who don’t come from the city come to the city and they bike. I didn’t think about biking, I guess. You just do that when you’re young.”

Now, she says, “Oh my gosh, my whole life revolves around the bike-share system.” As the healthy communities program manager at MARP, the busy 26-year-old bikes between seven different sites in Fort Greene, including the Boys and Girls Club and Navy Yard, and uses Citi Bike to get to school and her internship as well. Since 2015, she’s gone down two pant sizes.

Boykin was featured in Restoration’s Citi Bike ads and says she’s stopped constantly by folks who see her riding and want to learn more. She’s happy to advocate; she really loves the service and that she doesn’t need to deal with the hassle of owning a bike of her own. But she wishes there were stations in more of the places she needs to go: Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Coney Island, the vast expanse of southern Brooklyn currently blank on the Citi Bike map.

When people stop her, their biggest concern is usually safety. “Which is kind of a hard thing to grapple with, because how do you make everyone feel safe?” she asks. “And the only conclusion I’ve got is more bike lanes.” Boykin, who feels safest in a bike lane, admits to sometimes riding in the wrong direction if there’s only a bike lane on one side of the street.

“I think people are very much intimidated because of the amount of cars on the road but when they see that you can kind of share the road, then they become a little bit more comfortable,” says Kweli Campbell, a Bed-Stuy resident who led half a dozen community rides last year. A Citi Bike member since 2014, she joined after moving back to New York from New Jersey and realizing that in Brooklyn, a car was more of a hassle than an asset. She had already signed up before the Restoration efforts, and was contacted to serve as an ambassador.

Besides safety concerns, the people on her rides have expressed confusion about the pricing, and reflected the earlier distrust that Restoration is trying to overcome. “I think a lot of people feel like they weren’t involved [in the planning process],” says Campbell.

With her rides, Campbell is trying to show biking can be for everyone. She leads trips to Brooklyn destinations like Williamsburg, and draws an intergenerational crowd. “I’m seeing kids to older people wanting to ride. Even my mother!” she says. “I didn’t even know she knew how to ride a bike.”

The rides also allow Campbell to promote another, underappreciated benefit to biking: the ability to connect Brooklynites with burgeoning opportunities in their borough.

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew a lot of kids who never left their neighborhoods,” she says. “I think that’s one thing that the Citi bikes allow.” On one of her rides, she takes Bed-Stuy residents to the Prospect Park farmers market, for example. By bus, “It would be a whole day trip. It would take forever,” she says. “But on a bike it’s doable.”

Capers says, “For this really to take hold, to really break through for people of color and low-income neighborhoods, it really needs to be normalized. And it will be normalized when it’s in more neighborhoods.” Locations haven’t yet been finalized for the next post-2017 expansion; Restoration is working to advocate for sites now. They’re also expanding their approach to other neighborhoods, like Harlem and the Two Bridges area in lower Manhattan.

Capers thinks the model Restoration is following could bear fruit everywhere. By partnering with many different agencies and organizations, Restoration has been able to vastly expand its impact through mini-grants and joint programs. Some job training programs have signed up to offer a bike-share membership instead of a MetroCard. Woodhull and Interfaith Medical Centers, two major employers in the area, will offer discounted memberships to employees, and are also working with the health department on a program that would prescribe bike memberships to patients in need of more physical activity. Working to improve street conditions is also a priority; Capers hopes that as more community members start to ride, they’ll take up the mantle of bike advocacy as well.

“I’d never desired to be on a bike on New York City streets. Of all the things in my life I wanted to do, that’s not one of them,” she says. But in the last 10 months as a member, she’s made over 125 trips. “I realize my courage is growing every day.”

Bed-Stuy Is Going From Low Ridership to Bike-Share Boom

Kweli Campbell leading a community Citi Bike ride in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn (Photo courtesy of Kweli Campbell)

When Citi Bike rolled out across New York City in 2013, its eastern edge was Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and one where home values are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the United States. On the western side of the neighborhood, where the first wave of the system’s bike-share stations appeared, home values have nearly tripled since 2005.

But the stations didn’t reach the neighborhood’s east and north areas, where five large and several smaller public housing complexes are located. They didn’t extend south to Crown Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood experiencing rising rents and rapid displacement, or southeast to Brownsville or East New York, neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and public housing. So while New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing residents were entitled to discounted memberships from bike-share’s launch in NYC, and while the neighborhood has high rates of diet- and activity-related diseases, and while the city’s DOT had worked with community development organization Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration on choosing sites for the first stations, ridership in Bed-Stuy remained well below the citywide average.

To many in the neighborhood, the bikes, and all the health and transportation benefits they represented, were harbingers of gentrification, and not intended for the long-standing communities of color where they were placed.

Four years later, bike-share is seeing growth in Bed-Stuy. In 2016, the number of Citi Bike rides and memberships increased faster there than in the city as a whole. The number of NYCHA residents with memberships increased faster in Brooklyn than citywide, and faster still in Bed-Stuy. According to a new report by Restoration, a Brooklyn-based community development organization, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Bed-Stuy saw 225 percent more Citi Bike trips in June 2016 than in June 2015.

What changed? Expansions in 2015 and 2016 increased the number of stations and bikes in Bed-Stuy (though not in Crown Heights, or East New York, or Brownsville), especially near the public housing on the northern end. But more than that, Restoration dedicated itself to a three-year mission of changing the culture and conversation about bike-share.

“We knew that [Citi Bike] wasn’t necessarily received widely,” says Tracey Capers, Restoration’s executive vice president for programs. “We knew that it was pretty misunderstood, but what we thought was, wouldn’t it be powerful if we could use bike-share to change the neighborhood conversation and show how it could be a useful tool in supporting residents in achieving their goals.”

Goals like getting to work and school, increasing physical activity and, especially, bridging gaps in a transportation desert. The public housing on Bed-Stuy’s north side has spotty public transportation access, and all of Brooklyn suffers from poor north-to-south connections. A bike can shrink a 45-minute ride on a tangle of subway and bus lines from Sumner Houses in Bed-Stuy to the Prospect Park farmers market into a single, 22-minute ride.

But before Restoration could increase ridership, the organization had to find out why residents hadn’t signed up already. Restoration partnered with Citi Bike operator Motivate and the NYC Departments of Transportation and Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a series of surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one stakeholder conversations.

They found that among 230 surveyed residents, 87 percent had heard of Citi Bike and 74 percent wanted a station near where they lived, but only 18 percent had used it. Though 36 percent had ridden a bike in the past year, 32 percent did not think Citi BIke was “intended for people like me.” When asked what would encourage them to buy an annual pass, 51 percent said they’d want docking stations in better places, 45 percent said they’d need to feel safer biking in the neighborhood, and 42 percent wanted more bike lanes. Thirty-five percent said they’d be more likely to sign up if they saw “other people like me using Citi Bike.”

Capers, herself a Citi Bike convert, says the latter was a barrier for her too. “I realized I personally had this perception that there weren’t a lot of people of color biking in Bed-Stuy and in Brooklyn,” she says. “People are more likely to be swayed or moved when they see themselves reflected in the issue or the project.”

So Restoration launched a series of events and marketing campaigns intended to broadcast the stories of riders of color and connect them with curious community members. These ambassadors led community rides from Bed-Stuy to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, wrote blog posts for Citi Bike’s website and were featured in Restoration’s #FreshMovesBKNY campaign. The ads touted the health benefits of biking, but also the material ones: an unlimited MetroCard costs $121 a month, compared to a Citi Bike membership of $163 a year. But for those eligible for discounted fares, an unlimited subway card is $60 a month — and Citi Bike membership is $60 a year.

Shaquana Boykin signed up for Citi Bike in the summer of 2015, when she learned that the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), where she works, was eligible to purchase discounted memberships for employees. Until a Restoration meeting where she heard that, she hadn’t known about the NYCHA discount either. But she says cost was only a secondary concern.

“I just literally didn’t know what those bikes were in front of my building,” she says, referring to the public housing complex where she lives. “I never went up to the station or anything.”

Shaquana Boykin (Credit: Better BikeShare Partnership)

When she worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, all of her coworkers biked. But Boykin, a Bed-Stuy native, assumed that was the kind of thing people did if they’d grown up elsewhere. “Maybe people who don’t come from the city come to the city and they bike. I didn’t think about biking, I guess. You just do that when you’re young.”

Now, she says, “Oh my gosh, my whole life revolves around the bike-share system.” As the healthy communities program manager at MARP, the busy 26-year-old bikes between seven different sites in Fort Greene, including the Boys and Girls Club and Navy Yard, and uses Citi Bike to get to school and her internship as well. Since 2015, she’s gone down two pant sizes.

Boykin was featured in Restoration’s Citi Bike ads and says she’s stopped constantly by folks who see her riding and want to learn more. She’s happy to advocate; she really loves the service and that she doesn’t need to deal with the hassle of owning a bike of her own. But she wishes there were stations in more of the places she needs to go: Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Coney Island, the vast expanse of southern Brooklyn currently blank on the Citi Bike map.

When people stop her, their biggest concern is usually safety. “Which is kind of a hard thing to grapple with, because how do you make everyone feel safe?” she asks. “And the only conclusion I’ve got is more bike lanes.” Boykin, who feels safest in a bike lane, admits to sometimes riding in the wrong direction if there’s only a bike lane on one side of the street.

“I think people are very much intimidated because of the amount of cars on the road but when they see that you can kind of share the road, then they become a little bit more comfortable,” says Kweli Campbell, a Bed-Stuy resident who led half a dozen community rides last year. A Citi Bike member since 2014, she joined after moving back to New York from New Jersey and realizing that in Brooklyn, a car was more of a hassle than an asset. She had already signed up before the Restoration efforts, and was contacted to serve as an ambassador.

Besides safety concerns, the people on her rides have expressed confusion about the pricing, and reflected the earlier distrust that Restoration is trying to overcome. “I think a lot of people feel like they weren’t involved [in the planning process],” says Campbell.

With her rides, Campbell is trying to show biking can be for everyone. She leads trips to Brooklyn destinations like Williamsburg, and draws an intergenerational crowd. “I’m seeing kids to older people wanting to ride. Even my mother!” she says. “I didn’t even know she knew how to ride a bike.”

The rides also allow Campbell to promote another, underappreciated benefit to biking: the ability to connect Brooklynites with burgeoning opportunities in their borough.

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew a lot of kids who never left their neighborhoods,” she says. “I think that’s one thing that the Citi bikes allow.” On one of her rides, she takes Bed-Stuy residents to the Prospect Park farmers market, for example. By bus, “It would be a whole day trip. It would take forever,” she says. “But on a bike it’s doable.”

Capers says, “For this really to take hold, to really break through for people of color and low-income neighborhoods, it really needs to be normalized. And it will be normalized when it’s in more neighborhoods.” Locations haven’t yet been finalized for the next post-2017 expansion; Restoration is working to advocate for sites now. They’re also expanding their approach to other neighborhoods, like Harlem and the Two Bridges area in lower Manhattan.

Capers thinks the model Restoration is following could bear fruit everywhere. By partnering with many different agencies and organizations, Restoration has been able to vastly expand its impact through mini-grants and joint programs. Some job training programs have signed up to offer a bike-share membership instead of a MetroCard. Woodhull and Interfaith Medical Centers, two major employers in the area, will offer discounted memberships to employees, and are also working with the health department on a program that would prescribe bike memberships to patients in need of more physical activity. Working to improve street conditions is also a priority; Capers hopes that as more community members start to ride, they’ll take up the mantle of bike advocacy as well.

“I’d never desired to be on a bike on New York City streets. Of all the things in my life I wanted to do, that’s not one of them,” she says. But in the last 10 months as a member, she’s made over 125 trips. “I realize my courage is growing every day.”

Tampa Dreams of Turning Novelty Streetcar Into Transit Solution

(Photo by Daneshjai via Flickr)

With the Tampa Bay region stalled on meaningful public transit investment, the city of Tampa is asking residents whether expanding an existing tourist-centric streetcar might help alleviate their transportation woes.

Currently, the novelty line runs 2.7 miles between the Ybor City and Channel District neighborhoods, a short stretch that doesn’t reach downtown’s highest job concentrations, let alone the airport or the University of Tampa. It doesn’t even begin operation until noon on weekdays, and 11 a.m. on weekends, greatly diminishing its usefulness to commuters.

Now, with $1 million from the Florida DOT, and another $677,390 from the city’s own coffers, Tampa is considering what an expanded streetcar system might look like, and engaging in a series of public feedback sessions. Despite a perception that the streetcar is for tourists, not residents, Christina Barker, special assistant to the mayor, says the public’s support for new transit options is high.

“We’re hearing a lot of different opinions about how the streetcar can be used and where it could be going, but I think the overall theme is there is demand for this kind of transportation option, that people want more options, and they don’t want to need to get in their cars to go everywhere,” she says.

Right now, that’s a Tampa resident’s best option: their own car if they can afford it, the free Downtowner circulator van if they can’t. According to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year, among the 30 largest U.S. metros, the Tampa Bay region ranks near the very bottom for transit coverage and usage, and spends far less on transit than any other major metro area. As a result, most people who can drive do so, leading to worsening congestion as other options like Lyft and Uber also clog the roads and surface parking slowly disappears, replaced by housing.

Barker says congestion and transportation always rank among residents’ and potential businesses’ primary concerns. “But as a city we tend to have to rely heavily on our surrounding county for funding sources and different avenues to build these bigger projects, and they haven’t been panning out,” she says. “So we took a step back and started looking inward to, what is a project that the city can really champion that’s our own?”

The streetcar wouldn’t solve regional transportation issues, then, but it might be able to connect dense Tampa neighborhoods where transit demand is high. At an April 4 meeting, consultant HDR presented six possible corridors to the public. Attendees were able to register their feedback and preferences in real time using software called Mentimeter.

Of the 69 people in attendance, 55 said they primarily commuted by car. Most didn’t live in the downtown core, but about half commuted there for work. Their responses to specific corridors showed a clear preference for a north-south route, specifically one that would connect the downtown to the Marion Transit Center and the Tampa Heights neighborhood. A diagonal corridor slicing through downtown from northeast to southwest, passing through the University of Tampa, was the second most popular option. Three possible east-west corridors received about equal support.

“To build a streetcar system that encompasses more of the city, it would have to be done in phases. So what we’re looking for right now is: What is the logical next step?” says Barker.

Steve Schukraft of HDR says the city will focus on one route for now, while keeping the system flexible to introduce more service in the future. Based on feedback, Tampa and HDR will select two or three possible alignments to present to the Federal Transit Administration for approval.

He also says the proposal is still mode neutral. This could be a traditional streetcar expansion, or the system could use rubber-tire vehicles or even be equipped to handle autonomous vehicles in the future. Whether or not traditional streetcar technology is utilized might depend on how far the system is expected to expand. For 5- to 6-mile downtown connections, a streetcar is just fine. Over longer distances, the system would need more power.

In the public meetings, say Schukraft, while most people are open to the idea, “We are getting some skepticism about extending streetcar partly because of the concerns about current service. … Because of budget constraints, it hasn’t provided a consistent full-day service that’s close enough headways for people to make that a commute choice. So it’s a special purpose service and a special purpose trip now, so people are skeptical of investing more in that because they don’t believe it would address downtown’s transit concerns.”

Barker hopes the public feedback process is changing how people think of the streetcar, but she too acknowledges that the streetcar’s current limits make some residents wary of expansion. Local station News Channel 8 recently took a skeptical look at the economics of it all, noting that no matter what, the streetcar, like most transit systems, won’t pay for itself. But it could do better than it does now, says Barker.

“If it operated during commuting hours, if it connected to more jobs, I think you’d see a much bigger return on investment than we’re seeing right now,” Barker says. “Historically we haven’t necessarily funded operations of the streetcar that would demand the ridership that we’d like to see it have.” She also hopes the feedback sessions are informing the public on how other cities’ streetcar systems work. Unlike in D.C. or Seattle, Tampa’s streetcar does not run in the middle of the roadway but in its own right-of-way. Maintaining that design in an expansion could allow Tampa to avoid the slow speeds and traffic issues that have sometimes accompanied other streetcar projects.

The final public meeting, at which HDR will present results from the first two sessions, will be held on May 2.

Indianapolis Land Trust Specializes in Affordable Housing for Artists

A house being rehabbed in Indianapolis for artist residence (Photo by Kurt Nettleton)

Indianapolis, says Jim Walker, tends to be just a little behind the curve when it comes to urban trends in the U.S. For artists threatened by gentrification, that could be a good thing. Walker is co-founder and CEO of Big Car Collaborative, a nonprofit arts organization that’s embarking on an initiative to preserve affordable housing for artists in the city’s Garfield Park neighborhood. With it, he thinks the neighborhood has a chance to buck a usual gentrification trend — artists move into struggling areas, contribute to beautification and cultural development, and wind up priced out in a couple of years.

Bisected by an interstate and hit hard by the housing crisis, Garfield Park has an abundance of vacancies. But while artists can afford to buy or rent that inexpensive housing now, in a few years, as property values rise and a bus rapid transit line comes to the main drag, they could be pushed out alongside many longtime residents.

To prevent that, Big Car has partnered with the Riley Area Community Development Corporation and the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Project to purchase and rehab 10 vacant houses on Cruft Street, a short stretch that starts at Shelby Street, the main drag, and dead-ends at I-65. Artists are applying now to buy those houses, with a twist: Big Car and partners will retain ownership of 51 percent of the house, artists will purchase the other 49 percent, and the organizations will maintain the homes’ affordability even if surrounding property values increase.

For a house valued at just under $100,000, for example, an artist might take out a loan for $40,000, making mortgage payments of $575 a month. When they want to sell, Big Car and partners will buy them out, and sell the house to another artist at nearly the same price. Even if, in five or 10 years, the house could fetch $150,000 on the market, artists would still pay just $40,000, or a little more.

“We want to make sure that the new residents as well as the existing ones have a long-term opportunity to stay here,” says Walker. “It’s a land trust for programming.”

By that, he means that not only does the model preserve affordable housing — a land trust — but it also increases the cultural capital of the neighborhood. In their application, artists are asked not only about their financial situation, but also how their creative practice, broadly defined, will contribute to their new community. They’ll be required to put in 16 hours a month of civic work of some kind, whether that’s attending public meetings, offering workshops or just talking to their neighbors. They’ll also open their homes or yards for public events a few times a year.

“I think a lot of times, the creative world can get pushed aside, and all they can do is beautify a space, they’re just aesthetically pleasing,” says Danicia Monet, program manager for the Artist and Public Life Residency. “But no, they’re engaged in this and they’re saying, I have something to offer beyond my craft. I can help build the vitality of this neighborhood with my dollar as well, and my sweat equity.” (Monet is also a Next City Vanguard.)

With the first round of applications due this week, Monet says a diverse group of applicants, from Indianapolis and around the world, have expressed interest. And they’re asking good questions. They want to know how they can be engaged, and whether there’s a neighborhood association, she says. “Those are great questions and they showcase to me that people care about where they live and want to be somewhere safe and conducive to their lifestyle, and they have something to contribute.”

Two artists will be chosen for two houses in this first round, with homeowners expected to move in in July. Four more residents could be selected by the end of the year. Big Car is still weighing whether to keep the remaining four homes to rent. Artists will also have access to resources and events at Big Car’s Tube Factory art space, also on Cruft Street, and Listen Hear, a storefront on Shelby Street dedicated to sound art.

In more ways than one, this is no ordinary realty experience. “The odd thing and the kind of unique thing about this is, you’re buying a house, right, but we’re not showing the applicants the houses that are up for sale,” says Monet. The houses are being rehabbed specifically to accommodate certain kinds of artistic practice — a big garage for carpentry work, huge sinks for washing brushes. As the panelists review applications, they’re trying to consider artists’ lifestyles and needs to make a match.

“There’s definitely some trust in this process,” says Monet. “You’re really buying the program and you’re trusting in the program, so it’s kind of like signing up for a fellowship.” If the house they’re matched to doesn’t work for them, artists can pass and be considered for future properties.

Monet acknowledges this is part of the gentrification process, but if done right, it doesn’t need to contribute to displacement. The properties were already vacant, and while the artists can sell and leave any time, they’re encouraged to stay at least seven years.

“[We’re asking] ‘how do you increase the value of a neighborhood,’ because they all have to change at some point,” she says. “It’s a natural form of development that happens in any growing city, but how do you make sure it happens in a healthy way?”

As for current neighbors, Walker says Big Car and Riley Area CDC are working to communicate about the changes to come. The new Red Line bus rapid transit project will be coming up Shelby Street, and Walker knows what that means: “We Buy Houses” signs will start to appear on utility poles, handwritten versions slipped under doors, as property values rise. “If the neighbors know why that’s happening, they might not choose to move,” says Walker. “Now is not a time to leave this neighborhood.”

San Francisco Is Redesigning City Hall Plaza Into a Space for All

United Nations Plaza in San Francisco (Photo by Prayitno via Flickr)

San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood serves as the city’s front porch, both its seat of government and a microcosm for the booms and busts of a city in the throes of an identity crisis. Here is City Hall, the opera house, the main public library, Twitter’s headquarters and a weekly farmer’s market on United Nations Plaza.

Here too, in the stark expanses between imposing buildings, are scores of unhoused people, sleeping on the ground — a former mayor thought removing benches would shoo the homeless away. Here is a thriving drug trade, with 12,000 hypodermic needles removed from the site just last year.

Now a slate of new initiatives may transform UN and Civic Center Plazas, and the spaces between them, this time with inclusivity as a specific goal. The city met with bidders for a redesign project in January, after Mayor Ed Lee’s office published a proposal that acknowledges past administrations’ failure to make the space safer and more enjoyable for all.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads the proposal. Regarding the removal of benches from both plazas in the 1990s and early 2000s, the document acknowledges, “The result of this stripped environment is spaces that are unwelcoming to everyone, and have achieved minimal reduction in illicit or undesirable behaviors.”

While larger transformations are still a few years away, pop-up exhibitions by the Exploratorium aim to enliven the space today, and partnerships with nonprofits are demonstrating how diverse populations might share the space in peace. In UN Plaza, the Exploratorium has installed four large interactive pieces called the Sound Commons. One challenges visitors to walk across a bed of gravel as quietly as possible. Giant chimes and xylophones let anyone make music, or at least noise.

But what’s really unique about the installations are the monitors minding them. Staff from the nonprofit Hunters Point Family have been hired by the city to talk to visitors, guide them through the installations, and keep the area safe and clean. Nearly all of them were formerly incarcerated, serving life sentences, and are now living in a halfway house.

“They have been really an ideal population to staff these areas because of their emotional intelligence that people usually have to develop if you’re on the prison yard for twenty plus years and you’re not sure that you’re getting out,” says Lena Miller, co-executive director of Hunters Point Family. “You really need to know how to deal with all kinds of people.”

The nonprofit got the contract because of their successful work with Public Works’ Pit Stop program, which provides public toilets, sharps containers and dog waste stations around San Francisco. Hunters Point Family staff serve as attendants for those toilets, both keeping the peace and collecting data.

A tremendous amount of data, says Miller: the demographics of those using the facilities, how long they’re in there, how many flushes. Monitors at UN Plaza are also asked to track many data points for the city: which exhibits are being used and which aren’t, the genders and ages of visitors, reports of graffiti or feces, how many hypodermic needles are collected a day.

Right now they’re keeping notes on a paper spreadsheet, but the nonprofit is collaborating with Public Works to make an app. Like a McDonald’s register, says Miller, but instead of pressing buttons for Big Macs and French fries, they’ll tap feces and needles.

That data helps with both quality control and accountability. It can help point out what’s working and what isn’t, and justify spending public money on the project. City staff walk through the space every day on their way to City Hall, says Miller, and they want to know the project is having an impact. Last month, library officials raised concerns about contributing $100,000 to the Civic Center Commons project. Miller says the data should speak for itself.

The Hunters Point Family monitors are clustered around the Exploratorium exhibits. In the rest of the space, team members from the Downtown Streets Team are keeping the space clean and reaching out to the unhoused. Another nonprofit, Downtown Streets Team engages homeless people to volunteer their time on janitorial and hospitality projects in exchange for case management and a stipend toward basic needs like groceries and rent.

The 11-year-old nonprofit only began operating in San Francisco last year, and the Civic Center was its first site. They’d considered the Mission, the Castro and the Tenderloin, neighborhoods more notoriously associated with homelessness in the public imagination, “but it really felt like being in Civic Center/UN Plaza was a good idea for us because there was an extreme need from an unhoused population there, but there was also a need to change the face of homelessness in the community,” says Brandon Davis, project director for the San Francisco team. “Because tech exists there, government exists there, because small business exists there, and then a very large unsheltered population lives there as well.”

Most of the team members are themselves from the Civic Center/UN Plaza community. In addition to picking up debris, they recruit other homeless people to join the team. Davis says the city has done a good job of treating them as stakeholders, including them in conversations around the civic center redesign.

“It’s been truly uplifting for the city to come to our team members and our participants and show them potential plans for the project area and ask them what they think and what their input is on it,” he says. “That’s been very cool for our folks, who often feel they’re on the outskirts of society.”

Both Miller and Davis stress that these staff are uniquely capable of engaging with all users of the space with compassion and understanding. The city has also fixed up streetlights around the plaza and increased foot patrols by the San Francisco Police Department, but it’s no small contribution the homeless and formerly incarcerated staff make, “which is to keep the peace without a gun, or a badge, or authority,” says Miller. Davis suspects other homeless folks in the plaza are wary of wronging streets team staff that they know are in the same position as them.

“One message that has been clear from all project partners is, we’re all a community here, and regardless of tech worker or homeless or whatever, we will just not allow unsafe things to happen in the project area,” he says.

More installations and exhibits are planned for the plazas while the more permanent designs take shape.

Artist Brings Houston History, Light to Unlikely Place

Stephen Korns’ installation, “Houston Oracle in Two Parts” (Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

Beneath an overpass in Houston, one block north of City Hall, one block east of Buffalo Bayou, the Houston oracle invites passersby to muse on the city, past and future.

There, building on his lighting work for the Buffalo Bayou Park, artist Stephen Korns has installed a multisensory video, audio and sculpture work where Bagby Street passes, for one block, beneath the convention center. Whereas Korns’ work typically deals with perception of and access to nature, this installation, titled “The Houston Oracle in Two Parts,” takes a kaleidoscopic view of Houston history, a fractured and mysterious archive Korns hopes will also speak to the future.

“It’s looking for signs about what the city is or can be,” he says. “What is its potential in the present, based on the evidence?”

Here’s the evidence accumulated in the tunnel-like space on Bagby Street: On one side of the roadway is a corrugated metal facade reminiscent of Houston’s industrial buildings; on the other, a facade of reclaimed residential siding, reminiscent of a simple, early house. Each has a window, and in each, a video monitor flickers.

In the faux-industrial building is footage of Earth captured from the International Space Station. In the faux-house is a video of an archivist’s hands as she flips through 100 portraits of Houston families from 1870 to 1970.

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

Audio plays throughout the space: The voices of Houstonians asking questions of themselves and each other, across the decades. “When did you last have your photo taken? Where does your food come from?” they ask.

“It’s an archive about living in the city, what the city has been and what it can be,” says Korns. The space station footage pays homage to Houston’s connection to NASA; the metal siding to the city’s industrial roots; the stage-set atmosphere to the installation’s location in the theater district; the portraits to the city’s changing demographics. On a conceptual level, Korns says the installation — located two blocks north of the Houston Public Library — is about understanding how the city functions as an archive, and about the concept of archive itself.

“Who creates the archive, what gets into it, what histories are represented, who has access to it?” he asks. The questions of Houstonians, playing throughout, pay further homage to the idea of the oracle, the wise intermediary who makes prophecies or answers questions. Korns says, “I want people to pause and look closely at a place, confident there’s something hidden to be found.”

And sure enough, there’s another hidden dimension to the installation. In the early 2000s, Korns designed the lighting and public art master plan for nearby Buffalo Bayou Park. Houston experiences few dramatic seasonal shifts, so Korns and his team wanted to call attention to what does change in nature.

“Our view, looking at lighting and public art as both elements of a sympathetic design scope, was that you had to recognize that the bayou changes, that nature changes, that to catch nature you have to catch it as it changes,” he says.

They hit upon the lunar cycle. For about 5 miles along Buffalo Bayou, special lights change over the weeks from blue to white and back again as the moon waxes and wanes. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which has also embraced unusual venues for art, will gradually expand the lunar lighting about 7 miles downstream to the ship canal as other projects along the bayou take shape. Ultimately up to 15 miles of the lightning may be installed. Korns’ original plan called for incorporating more sites farther off the river, potentially even office buildings.

“We’re essentially talking about turning the bayou into a moon clock, turning the city into a moon clock,” he says.

Now the Bagby Street installation is a moon clock too, its lighting changing between blue and white. The lighting is one element drivers will likely notice from their cars, but the installation is distinctly intended for pedestrians, a way to stoke their curiosity and encourage them to walk through.

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

“[These underpasses] do sometimes work as barriers,” says Debbie McNulty, Houston’s director of cultural affairs. The city, which has grown to encompass the highways that were once its boundaries, has many of them. Often dark, narrow spaces, sometimes filled with trash, these underpasses don’t exactly encourage walking in a city already known for its car culture. McNulty compares the transformation of the Bagby tunnel to Discovery Green, once an asphalt parking lot she would never have walked across into a park that she crosses all the time.

“Making those spaces more functional, multifunctional, and more pleasant is stepping away from car culture,” she says. The Bagby Street underpass was slated for transformation by former Mayor Annise Parker because of its prominent location; McNulty says others could eventually follow.

Philly, L.A. Transit Agencies Face Power Questions Over Transit Plans

SEPTA regional rail in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

The same week President Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to roll back Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, climate activists in two cities on opposite sides of the United States were pressuring their transit agencies to think about how today’s investments will impact the adoption of renewable energy sources in the future.

Five days before Trump’s order, activists packed board hearings in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In the former, a coalition of climate and labor groups demanded that LA Metro completely electrify its bus system. In the latter, 350 Philadelphia, a group that focuses on climate justice, and residents of the Nicetown and Tioga neighborhoods made a last-ditch effort to get the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to drop plans for a new natural gas plant.

In Los Angeles, the message was well received. Less so in Philadelphia, where, despite activists’ protest songs, SEPTA’s board voted unanimously to go forward with a new combined heat and power facility in Nicetown. The natural gas plant would power half of the regional rail system and provide baseline power in the event of an outage at PECO, the region’s largest electric and gas utility. SEPTA estimates it would reduce the agency’s overall carbon footprint by 15 percent by decreasing reliance on coal-generated electricity, and increase the system’s climate resilience.

But 350 Philadelphia argues that such an investment will only delay SEPTA’s adoption of renewables in the future.

“It’s not the response we hoped for, but the one we expected,” says Mitch Chanin, of 350 Philadelphia. “We don’t accept the premise that burning natural gas, because it emits less carbon than coal, is a climate solution. [The new Nicetown plant] is taking them in the wrong direction in terms of climate impact.”

The new plant would take at least two years to build and operate for at least two decades, a time period during which Chanin and others at 350 expect the cost of renewable energy to plummet. If prices for electricity from renewables does become cheaper than electricity from natural gas plants, SEPTA would be locked into paying for more expensive power.

According to Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s innovation director, the agency requires that all sustainability projects be budget neutral. Under Pennsylvania’s Guaranteed Energy Savings Grant, a bank will pay for the construction of the $26.8 million natural gas plant, and SEPTA will pay off the loans using the estimated $8.5 million per year in savings from the switch. The site of the new plant, next door to a bus depot, is just under an acre; the facility would be able to power trains at a weekend service level, with PECO making up the difference on weekdays.

To generate an equivalent amount of power using solar panels would require 83 acres, says Johanson, who points to cost and space as major reasons it isn’t feasible for SEPTA to rely on renewables to increase energy resiliency right now. They’re becoming less expensive, but not quickly enough.

“The scale of energy requirements of running an entire bus garage … and half of our regional rail system far exceeds what you could generate with a solar array, even if you covered that entire facility with solar panels and even if you installed multiple megawatts of battery storage to smooth the load,” he says.

Chanin says 350 Philadelphia recognizes that the Nicetown site alone couldn’t generate enough power using solar or wind, but had hoped SEPTA would engage in a more complete alternatives analysis. Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the district where the plant would be built, has also said in a statement that while SEPTA complied with EPA regulations, its environmental impact analysis didn’t answer pressing questions.

“My concern is that the EPA requirements do not specifically address what the long-term effects of this type of generator would be in an urban, residential community that already suffers from a considerable amount of environmental, economic, and health-related stresses,” she said. The neighborhood surrounding the plant already experiences the highest rate of childhood asthma hospitalizations in the city.

Johanson rejects the idea that the plant constitutes an additional risk. In fact, he says, “There’s ample evidence to suggest that a resilient source of power is a way of preparing for climate change and extreme weather in the future, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from power generation while we’re at it.”

He also rejects the idea that building new natural gas infrastructure will compromise plans to increase use of renewables. In 2012, SEPTA released an Energy Action Plan that focused on increasing energy efficiency and expanding alternative sources, like recapturing heat from braking vehicles.

With nearly all of those goals met, and the cost of renewables dropping, SEPTA is planning to release a new renewable energy plan this year. As a first step, last fall the agency started looking into roof-mounted solar panels to power six of its maintenance facilities. And starting in 2018, two bus routes in South Philadelphia will be electrified. The 25 Proterra electric buses on those demonstration routes will be the largest electric bus fleet on the East Coast. By 2021, 95 percent of SEPTA’s bus fleet is expected to be hybrid-electric or fully electric.

Electric buses, of course, need to be charged — a huge energy suck. SEPTA’s solar arrays won’t have sufficient capacity to charge their batteries, so they’ll rely on PECO power, over a third of which is generated by coal, another third by natural gas, and less than 5 percent by renewable sources. On the same day that SEPTA voted to go forward with the Nicetown gas plant, activists on the other side of the country in Los Angeles were pressuring LA Metro to not only move toward an all-electric bus fleet, but also to make a long-term commitment to charge those buses using renewable energy.

“We don’t want to just transfer the pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack. We want them to be genuinely clean-energy buses,” says Kent Minault, organizer for the Sierra Club, one of a coalition of organizations pushing for electrification.

The Los Angeles region knows a thing or two about the risks of natural gas leaks, and California has been a leader in setting ambitious renewable energy targets. So when the Sierra Club and partner organizations learned in January that LA Metro planned to acquire 1,000 new compressed natural gas buses, they started showing up at board meetings to discourage a move they saw as detrimental to the region’s long-term switch to renewables.

To Minault’s surprise, they were received positively. At a meeting with climate groups, LA Metro said the coalition’s goal of 100 percent electric and emissions-free buses by 2030 was a little fast, but stated a commitment to reaching the same goal. There are three electric bus manufacturers in the Los Angeles region, including Proterra, so city leaders see electrification as a route to both reducing emissions and creating jobs. After a failed electric bus pilot several years ago, LA Metro recently agreed to purchase and deploy five electric buses from local manufacturer BYD.

As in Philadelphia, climate activists are also looking at the source of the electricity that will charge those bus batteries. Right now, 25 percent of energy generated by the municipal-owned Los Angeles Department of Water and Power comes from renewable sources; by 2050, it could be 50 percent. The Sierra Club and partners including Jobs to Move America, Food & Water Watch, Community Health Councils, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11, want LA Metro to commit to building infrastructure like solar canopies over bus lanes that would allow the electric buses to get to 100 percent much faster than that.

As a result of pressure, procurement of the natural gas buses has been delayed again and again, this time possibly until July. “Every postponement is essentially a victory for us, because the longer it gets postponed, the stronger the case for all-electric becomes because electric technology is developing fast,” says Minault.

Jobs to Move America is also working to ensure electrification would provide well-paying jobs, and Sierra Club and other partners want assurances that neighborhoods hardest hit by air pollution would be the first to receive electric buses. The five buses LA Metro has agreed to purchase will serve the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley, not the deeply affected areas around South Los Angeles and in the Inland Empire.

Advice for HUD Secretary Ben Carson as He Gets Going on Listening Tour

HUD Secretary Ben Carson at his confirmation hearing in January (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)

During the January confirmation hearing for new U.S. HUD Secretary Ben Carson, the government outsider with no experience in housing or urban development promised that, if confirmed, he would launch his tenure with a listening tour.

Instead of “just listening to the sage people of D.C.,” he told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, “I want to hear from people with boots on the ground who are administering programs.”

That tour began in mid-March, with trips to Detroit and Miami, and will reportedly continue on to Dallas. How Carson chooses to conduct it — which programs he visits, which stakeholders he speaks to, whether the public is allowed to listen in — may prove revealing.

As The New York Times has reported, Carson’s view of public housing and federal anti-poverty initiatives in general has been deeply shaped by his own experience growing up poor. His mother espoused a strong belief that people could lift themselves out of poverty through hard work and education. Carson took that path, and so remains confident that others can do the same.

Now that he’s been appointed by President Donald Trump to head a federal department that will shape the fates of millions of low-income families, it’s an open question whether he will listen to other perspectives or allow his own experience — or lack thereof — to shape his policies.

So far, Carson’s tour has been largely shaped by ideology, and squarely within the secretary’s comfort zone. His first visit was positively Trumpian — to a public school named for Carson in his hometown of Detroit. According to the Detroit Free Press, he spoke to approximately 90 students and parents, taking about half a dozen questions before concluding the program.

He also spoke briefly to the press, during which he mostly evaded the question of whether he approved of a proposed $6 billion, 14 percent cut to HUD’s budget. Without offering specifics, he insisted that efficient, successful programs would remain. Asked what that meant for Detroit programs funded by Community Development Block Grants, which could be eliminated, Carson hedged.

“I think the programs that work extremely well will continue to be supported. We will find a way that they will be supported,” he said.

A few days later, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan tweeted out a photo of Carson at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Hartford Village, a new housing development for seniors by nonprofit, faith-based Presbyterian Villages of Michigan. Of the project’s 85 units, 20 percent are affordable and 80 percent market-rate. HUD funding comprises $12 million of the $17 million budget. Carson has repeatedly expressed support for partnerships between the government and faith-based or private groups.

The following week, he spoke at a church in Broward County, Florida, and praised a nearby Habitat for Humanity project in development as an example of how he wants HUD to operate.

“This project right here is one of the things that works because of public-private partnerships and how incredible they are at leveraging dollars,” he told the audience of local officials and housing advocates. “That’s how we become a success as a nation. The government can’t do everything, but the government can do things to get things started and then the private sector and faith community comes in and leverages that.”

But that project too depends upon Community Development Block Grants and other programs that would be slashed in Trump’s current budget plans. Housing advocates and elected leaders in Broward County, one of the country’s most unaffordable metro regions, said that such cuts would be devastating for an area where affordable housing is already out of reach for so many. As in Detroit, Carson told reporters not to despair — funding for housing would come from an as-yet-unspecified infrastructure budget, but he offered no specifics.

Listening tours aren’t new for HUD.

Salin Geevarghese, who served as deputy assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of International and Philanthropic Innovation during Secretary Shaun Donovan and Secretary Julián Castro’s tenures, participated in multiple.

“Absolutely the right idea for [Carson] to listen,” Geevarghese says. “But I don’t know if he’s willing to hear broadly, and if he’s going to pick and choose his audiences. … If you’re not going to be willing to hear from residents or people on the ground who may not agree with you, if you want to sort your audience by virtue of who’s just going to stand up and applaud for me, I don’t think that’s engagement.”

Geevarghese says that what he calls the “signal to listen” was sent out early during President Barack Obama’s administration, but his experience at HUD during that era also illustrates the limits of listening.

“Some of us came from the outside, so our posture was one that we knew we needed to listen to folks on the ground,” says Geevarghese, who had been a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Given the ongoing economic and foreclosure crises at the time, there was both a sense of urgency and a desire to try things HUD had never tried before.

“There was a lot of gnashing teeth on what should be the government’s role in giving people relief on the ground, and what should be the level of investment,” he says. That led to conversations about interagency partnerships for community economic development, and retooling HUD to work at metro and regional scales, not just on individual projects.

“This was going to be new for HUD. We needed to be open and receptive to places that had worked in innovative and creative ways,” he says.

In mid-2009 Congress appropriated funds for HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, which would coordinate federal investments in housing, transportation, water and other infrastructure. Despite the feverish climate of the times, the agency didn’t decide how to spend it behind closed doors. Instead HUD issued an advance notice on the funding that would become available, and Secretary Donovan launched a listening tour to ask local elected officials and community groups how the program could be most helpful to them. “We got bunches of feedback,” says Geevarghese, “much of which shaped the final program.”

But by the summer of 2010, with the Tea Party ascendant, a new narrative about the Sustainable Communities Initiative began to emerge. As he considers HUD policy going forward, Secretary Carson may want to think about Geevarghese’s telling of what happened next.

“It got a target sign placed on it by members of the Tea Party and the far right who thought, even though it was listening and ground up and lots of community engagement … thought this was Obama telling us where we need to live,” says Geevarghese.

By the time the first grants were awarded in October 2010, HUD was hearing from local and regional offices that Tea Party folks were showing up and shouting down meetings. “One thing we learned pretty quickly, at city hall … beyond the mayor and others who are used to electoral give and take, the planning department is not used to having to go to war,” he says. “HUD lost the narrative early, and by the time we started paying attention to it, the more extreme elements had already painted it as something that it definitely was not.”

The first people to recognize the sea change had been HUD’s field staff, but by the time their concerns reached the federal level, it was too late. Raabia Budhwani, who led the Strong Cities, Strong Communities team in HUD’s Macon, Georgia, office, during the Obama administration, says a listening tour represents an opportunity to elevate staff concerns.

“If in the field a [Field Policy and Management] employee has been working there for 5 to 10 years, has deep relationships with the community, and they understand something, they have to go through so many more layers to get that message conveyed and it’s probably lost in the game of telephone,” she says. If Carson’s eyes and ears are open to what field staff tell him, he can make changes far more quickly — but he could also propose quick fixes that don’t get to the core of the problem.

“If your political leadership don’t understand the bigger picture or the nuances of what’s happening in a community, they may hear one thing and act on it, and that might just be a Band-Aid and not an actual sustainable solution,” says Budhwani.

Long-term, she suggests HUD could use a more efficient listening infrastructure, to ensure the secretary doesn’t need to go on a cross-country tour for good local ideas to percolate up to the federal level. Maybe, just maybe, such an approach could cut through some of the political grandstanding — and allow Carson to engage in some of the streamlining he has talked about, without sacrificing programs that work.

“I suspect that a lot of work we did in the last administration, both the place-based way of working and [jobs support] will actually achieve the few goals that Carson has articulated for HUD,” says Budhwani. “He talked about how he doesn’t want to just give people housing. He actually wants them to empower people to get out of whatever situation they’re in. And that is the intent of the work we’ve been trying to do.”

So far, Geevarghese has been disheartened by an atmosphere of paranoia and guardedness that has enveloped HUD since Trump’s inauguration. (Despite multiple attempts to speak with a HUD representative about Carson’s listening tour plans, the department would not comment for this article.)

“We tried very hard in the [Obama] administration to lower the walls at HUD to make HUD a much more open, engaged, listening place,” he says. “It has not helped the agencies [in the Trump era] for there to be gag orders, to prevent talking to folks on the outside, much less other agencies. I’m hoping that, as secretary, Carson asks, ‘what is in the best interest of the country?’”

If he does so, and is ready to hear the answer, the listening tour could be considered a success.

“Listening comes at cost, and has trade-offs and it takes time and it takes patience,” says Geevarghese. “But I was glad to hear that he’ll be doing it, and I hope that he sees things that inform his frame.”

Downtown St. Louis Replaces Guides With Guards

St. Louis police (Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr)

For the past 17 years, if you were lost trying to find downtown St. Louis’ famous arch, a guide in a bright yellow shirt may have come to your assistance — and recommended a spot for toasted ravioli to boot. Today, you probably have a smartphone for that. As of this month, if you do find yourself turned around in St. Louis, it’ll no longer be a guide that comes to your rescue, but an off-duty police officer.

With both crime and the perception of crime edging up downtown, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District (CID) nixed the Downtown Guides program in mid-March — and replaced the yellow-shirted troop with security patrols.

Missy Kelley, president and CEO of Downtown STL Inc., which manages the CID, says residents’ safety concerns have grown in recent years — particularly since the 2014 unrest in nearby Ferguson after a black teen, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer — and they didn’t see the guides as providing security.

“[The guides] were just supposed to be extra eyes and ears on the street so that if they saw something they could alert the police,” says Kelley. “It was to be both a hospitality and security type program, but we were leaning a lot more on hospitality.” The guides were unarmed, and in fact were ordered to back away from security issues and call the police, given their lack of training.

The actual state of crime and safety in St. Louis is a little murky. Kelley says that while crime has not increased dramatically downtown, the perception of safety has changed.

“While downtown, like any other urban core has, has problems with crime, is certainly not the most dangerous part of city, it’s certainly not even close,” she says. But since the city’s police department has about 400 fewer cops in 2017 than in 2000, and 100 positions funded but unfilled, “we’re basically understaffed in downtown, and so as a result of that, the perception of safety is much worse than the actual safety,” says Kelley. “People think it’s a lot more dangerous than it actually is.”

But St. Louis Today’s crime tracker shows that crime downtown has in fact risen 6.26 percent over the past six months, compared to the same period the year before. Nearly 2,300 crimes were reported last year, about 75 percent of them related to property. That makes downtown’s crime rate the highest per capita of the city’s 77 neighborhoods — however, only 806 people lived downtown as of the 2010 census. Tens of thousands more commute to work downtown every day, and nearly 10 million visit annually.

Hence, Downtown STL Inc. wants to battle both the reality and perception. Not doing so could be costly. Personal injury law office Brown and Crouppen announced in February it was considering leaving downtown because of crime, especially after the recent killing of a local rapper. In the past three years, the guides saw calls to their pedestrian escort line nearly double. Under that service, guides walked residents worried about safety from offices to cars. The new security patrols will take over that duty, as well as hospitality ones. But of course, whether police add to a sense of safety or detract from it is a matter of perception too.

Kelley chalks up both the increased crime and concern about it to the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that police are backing off more aggressive enforcement for fear of sparking further backlash, and that criminals feel emboldened by their timidity. Some studies have identified a grain of truth in the idea. But there’s another “Ferguson effect” theory, one that may point to unintended consequences of replacing guides with guards. A study of 911 calls in Milwaukee found that following an incident of police violence there, emergency calls dropped precipitously — particularly in black neighborhoods.

Kelley isn’t concerned that more of a security presence will increase tensions between residents and officers, nor is she worried that having more officers on the street will make people think the problem is worse than it is.

“People already think it’s worse than it is,” she says. “Pretending that there’s not a perception problem or an actual problem isn’t helping anyone.”

She says the patrol officers will be hospitality-minded, not intimidating. Four pairs of officers will patrol from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Not the windows of greatest crime, Kelley notes, but the windows during which the most people are likely to be out on the streets and benefit from an increased perception of security.

Right now, all the roles are being filled by off-duty police officers but Downtown STL Inc. is looking to replace four of them with licensed watchmen, security guards who can patrol in the public right-of-way. Watchmen can’t make arrests and won’t carry weapons, but the police will. Downtown STL Inc. is still looking for a company to supply the watchmen. They’re seeking an agreement that the company must agree to consider any of the 11 guides who lost their jobs for watchmen positions, so long as they are eligible for training.

Watchmen will also take on the role of calling in necessary improvements to infrastructure, a role that guides once filled. The police patrols will address what Kelley calls “quality of life” issues related to homelessness and panhandling.

Analysis of L.A. Neighborhoods Shows Rich-Poor Trust Divide

 (AP Photo/David Kadlubowski)

Buffalo is considering it. Pittsburgh is too. New York, San Francisco, Tallahassee and dozens more municipalities already have it. Particularly in places like Seattle, where rental prices and income inequality are rapidly increasing, inclusionary zoning is seen as a promising but complicated tool for creating more affordable housing by requiring developers to reserve a percentage of new units to be sold or rented below market price. In addition, one study found data showed that, as of 2012, inclusionary zoning was promoting economic integration. But living side by side doesn’t necessarily lead to a meaningful bridging of the income divide.

Authors of a new paper found that when it comes to the rich and poor chatting at the corner bodega or the neighborhood park, even where low-income and high-income families are living in close proximity, they are unlikely to encounter each other in places of worship, laundromats, grocery stores and other informal “activity spaces.” It’s a finding that is as intuitive as it is troubling, calling into question efforts to promote mixed-income communities.​

“The greater the level of inequality in the neighborhood, the greater the likelihood that people are going to sort by socioeconomic status,” says Christopher Browning, an Ohio State University professor and one of the paper’s authors. “When folks move into a mixed-income housing development, they don’t necessarily develop network ties with people of different classes. This is an extension of that: They may not share locations of everyday activities either.”

The study isn’t sweeping: The data came from one source, the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey, which asked residents where they engaged in daily activities like grocery shopping. Researchers geocoded the answers and then looked at sample pairings of neighbors to see how often they shared space. Pairings of two low-income households were most likely to encounter each other informally, while high-income households were unlikely to encounter any neighbors — regardless of socioeconomic status.

Browning says that’s in part because wealthy people may have greater access to transportation and can more easily make decisions based on preference rather than cost — like choosing to drive to a grocery store with a better selection.

This sorting doesn’t happen equally in all mixed-income neighborhoods, the analysis found. “The greater the level of inequality in the neighborhood, the greater the likelihood that people are going to sort by socioeconomic status,” says Browning, a finding he explains as a function of trust. His paper poses a classic Jane Jacobs-style question: Did greater income diversity increase or decrease neighborhood trust? The Los Angeles survey asked residents “are people in this neighborhood trustworthy.” When Browning and his fellow researchers aggregated those answers into an overall trust score, they found that as inequality grew, distrust did too.

Hence, as inequality increases, low-income neighbors remain likely to share space with one another, but high-income neighbors separate themselves more. Distrust among all parties grows.

“This doesn’t bode well for the kind of spatial integration of gentrifying neighborhoods,” Browning says. Nor does it bode well for a neighborhood’s ability to organize for the collective good. Another upcoming paper that utilizes the same data demonstrates that sharing public space increases neighbors’ willingness to look out for each other, and to intervene on one another’s behalf.

The paper on activity space segregation appeared in the February volume of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, which focused on the “Spatial Foundations of Inequality.” George Galster, journal editor and Wayne State University professor, says many of the papers highlighted a trend toward increasing segregation by income, especially in schools. He suggests throwing a wrench in that trend with policies like inclusionary zoning.

But as Browning’s research shows, the resulting “integration” may be only superficial. “We’re sort of obsessed with mixed-used neighborhoods, but there’s, I think, a lot of emphasis on the physical environment and land use patterns without enough attention to the actual dynamics of activity in these neighborhoods that these things are trying to produce,” says Browning. He thinks neighborhoods most likely to experience true and lasting integration would have not a mix of very low-income and very high-income residents, but a mixture of low- and middle-income households.

“Is that a good thing? It’s not clear,” he says. “Ideally we’d be able to develop communities where people of all income levels could share public space without having detrimental outcomes come from that.” With the hollowing of the American middle class, it’s also an increasingly unlikely mix. (The paper did not look at social mixing by race.)

Browning admits it’s hard to draw any conclusions from just one study about just one place, but in the 55 neighborhoods in the study, he says he didn’t see evidence that people of vastly different income statuses enjoy shared environments without breeding distrust. Not that he thinks it’s impossible: If neighborhoods could plan in such a way that residents share space over time, says Browning, they may increase their collective efficacy, common willingness to look out for children, and overall network interactions. Indeed, studies have shown that children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods do in fact enjoy greater social mobility. Browning says when researchers find neighborhoods like this, we’d do well to learn from them.

The Way We Build Infrastructure Reflects Our Values

Los Angeles’ Expo Line (Photo by Steve and Julie)

In the billions of dollars of necessary infrastructure improvements across the United States, Stephanie Gidigbi sees an opportunity. Planning as usual has left low-income people and communities of color burdened by intersecting health, access and resiliency disparities. Being thoughtful about new projects and new investment offers the chance to do things differently.

“The communities that are impacted by the changes that are happening in our climate are the same ones that are impacted when it comes to health, and of course it’s the same ones that have racial inequities,” says Gidigbi, director of policy, capacity and systems change at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can’t expect that we can continue to build the same thing and get different outcomes.”

That’s the philosophy behind the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, or SPARCC, an initiative of the NRDC, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and the Low Income Investment Fund. The three-year initiative will provide funding, financing and technical assistance to coalitions of organizations working across sectors and issue areas in six U.S. cities to ensure that new infrastructure projects don’t reinforce the patterns of old.

Each participant — Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the Bay Area — is already planning an array of large infrastructure investments, funded through ballot-approved tax increases or federal grants. And in each, organizations are already working together to make sure neighborhoods get a say in how that money is spent. SPARCC aims to support the creation and growth of these “collaborative tables,” spaces where nonprofits, grassroots advocates, and the public and private sectors can come together to promote equitable change.

“These investments come and these places will change, and it will either become more inclusive or less inclusive,” says Brian Prater, executive vice president of strategy, development and public affairs at the Low Income Investment Fund, a San Francisco-headquartered community development financial institution. “It became very apparent to us that if you don’t plan for that growth and ensure that justice and equity are central to this conversation, then the traditional patterns of segregation, concentrated poverty and displacement will be repeated.”

In Los Angeles, where black residents have twice the asthma rate of the general population, and residents spend an average of 81 hours a year stuck in traffic and 57 percent of their income on housing and transportation, transit investment is seen as vital, and inseparable from issues of housing affordability and air pollution. So vital, in fact, that in the past eight years voters have approved two half-cent sales tax increases to expand transit and keep it affordable: Measure R in 2008 and Measure M in 2016.

“Even before Measure R happened there was growing recognition among neighborhood organizations and advocates that transit expansion could be a good thing or even a great thing for the region, but at the neighborhood level for low-income communities and communities of color it could be a potentially disruptive force and create the potential to lead to gentrification and displacement,” says Thomas Yee, initiative officer for LA Transit, Housing, Resources and Investment for a Vibrant Economy (LA Thrives), one of the groups leading the SPARCC effort in Los Angeles.

Since the measure passed, the city has only gotten more expensive, particularly along transit lines. But one thing has changed: “What we’re really excited about, we think Metro has really evolved as a partner to think about equity,” says Yee, referring to the county public transportation agency.

LA Thrives and another partner under SPARCC, ACT-LA (Alliance for Community Transit LA), advocated for Measure M, and will now have the opportunity to work with Metro to set priorities for how the money is spent and communities are engaged. Yee says doing so equitably requires looking at the whole region.

“L.A. County is a really big place,” he says. “The transit system touches the whole county.” Metro’s plans include construction sites in 24 surrounding cities. With the support and funding of SPARCC, LA Thrives and ACT-LA plan to expand their network to include advocates in other high-priority, target cities like Inglewood.

Metro is planning to add three new light-rail stations in Inglewood, while the mayor there has thrown his support behind a massive new NFL stadium. “But there’s really an absence of civic infrastructure there to really grapple with the challenges that come from all that displacement,” says Yee.

Gidigbi also sees regional collaboration, and recognition of the suburbanization of poverty, as key to SPARCC’s integrated approach. “We’re learning things in the city, we want to make sure the surrounding communities are being able to benefit from those pieces,” she says.

With SPARCC, LA Thrives and other partner organizations will also have access to capital financing, a critical bargaining chip at a time when cities may find themselves strapped for cash to implement community engagement programs — or even their planned transit expansions. Just during the reporting of this article, the White House released its proposed federal budget, which would slash funding for the Department of Transportation by 13 percent, imperiling projects approved but not yet fully funded under the New and Small Starts programs.

That includes two projects in Los Angeles — the downtown streetcar and phase three expansion of the Purple Line — and one in San Francisco, another SPARCC city. To SPARCC, the proposed budget cuts only lend credence to the fact that change will need to come from the local and regional levels.

It’s a fraught, but vital moment in shaping the future of cities. As Gidigbi notes, many major infrastructure projects were built in the 1960s, an America vastly different in some ways and eerily similar in others. While transit, housing, health and climate might not all seem to fit together at times, Gidigbi says, “they are so critical to ensuring that what we build today truly represents the values that we stand for today.”

Calif. City Tries Shifting Sands Amid Disappearing Beaches

Loyola Marymount University conducts a bird survey at the Santa Monica dune pilot site. (Credit: The Bay Foundation)

Santa Monica’s beaches, famed as the birthplace of the mid-20th-century fitness boom, have been as intentionally sculpted as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pecs at the peak of his beachside bodybuilding career. In 1934, the same year that a New Deal program brought fitness equipment to what would become Muscle Beach, the city of Santa Monica installed an offshore breakwater that captured sediment and dramatically widened those beaches by hundreds of feet.

Today, with sea level rise and erosion threatening to eat away at the sandy expanses and damage city infrastructure, Santa Monica is testing a softer intervention. In a partnership with the nonprofit Bay Foundation, 3 acres of the beach’s north end have been seeded with native California dune plants. If the pilot works as planned, over time hummocks of sand will build up around them, providing natural protection to the parking lots, bath houses and homes inland. By some estimates, sea levels off the California coast could rise by up to 6 feet over the next hundred years, putting this artificially strengthened landscape at risk.

“It’s interesting doing a restoration project on a sandy beach that never was there before,” says Melodie Grubbs, the Bay Foundation’s watershed programs manager. While East Coasters might be accustomed to beach flora and natural slopes of sand, Santa Monica’s beaches are groomed almost daily to keep them flat and free of trash. In addition to evaluating how well the dunes form on their own and how much protection they afford against sea level rise, the pilot, says Grubbs, is also about seeing how an urban community reacts to a project like this.

“I think it’s very important to demonstrate on an urban beach that’s very heavily used that this is compatible with recreation use of the beach,” says Judith Meister, beach manager for the city of Santa Monica. The north end was chosen because of its relatively low traffic, but if the pilot is successful and well-received by residents, more dune plants could be seeded farther down the beach.

Other hardscape solutions exist to protect beaches and inland infrastructure. The city could build more sea walls or jetties, for example, and in some locations that might be a better fit. San Diego, for example, is considering a hybrid sand-and-rock wall. Santa Monica’s more natural approach affords additional benefits for wildlife, but it will also take longer; dunes won’t form for two to three years, and the city doesn’t expect to make a decision regarding expansion for about five.

How Santa Monica hopes dunes will look in two to three years (Renderings by Mia Lehrer + Associates, courtesy The Bay Foundation)

“Southern California beaches are disappearing, so it’s already becoming a real problem that people want to take action on,” says Grubbs. “This is just one of those alternatives that people tend to prefer because it provides a really nice habitat, ecological benefit, and human use.”

Right now the pilot area is fenced off on three sides, open only where it faces the water’s edge. Visitors can walk along a pathway through the space, and they’re not prohibited from entering, just discouraged. After the recent rains, thousands of little seedlings are sprouting in the sand. Once they’re more securely rooted, people should be able to enjoy this habitat without harming it.

Snowy plovers, an endangered species seen in Santa Monica but never before on this stretch of beach, have already been spotted in the pilot zone. Grooming tends to keep them and other wildlife away.

“This is another opportunity to engage the public and understand really that the beach is much more than just a place to come and have fun but there’s a whole life system going on,” says Meister. The city will work with the Bay Foundation to install educational signage, and the nonprofit will work with local students to monitor the site for factors like wildlife use, plant growth, kelp that washes into the space, the movement of sand and the effects of storms.

Grubbs says those who live near the beach and have already experienced flooding during recent storms were an easy sell on the project. Other residents, not accustomed to unmanicured beaches weren’t so sure. One woman, says Grubbs, came into a community meeting prepared to hate the project. When she learned that the pilot would include flowering plants like evening primrose and sand verbena, she asked why it couldn’t be expanded along the whole stretch of beach.

One Austinite Has a Suggestion for Those Outraged Over Uberless SXSW

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Austin is broken. Austin has been thrown back into the Stone Age. Austin is in the midst of an apocalypse and the only thing that can save it is the return — please, as soon as possible — of ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft.

At least, that’s what you might have thought reading Twitter over the weekend, after a rainy Saturday boosted demand for taxis in the Texas capital. Currently hosting the annual South by Southwest conference, Austin saw the departure of Uber and Lyft last May after the City Council moved to more strictly regulate the companies’ ride services. Apps that sprang up in their wake, like Fasten and RideAustin, were overwhelmed Saturday and started to malfunction, leaving riders waiting impatiently — and furiously tweeting their discontent.

The appalled and outraged — pegged to be, by more than one publication, “tech bros” — accused the upstart apps of not doing proper testing, but they saved their greatest ire for the city of Austin itself, partly for not backing down on its regulation demands. “Austin definitely missed its chance to prove that cities are ready to fully-function without Uber or Lyft,” lamented one writer at TechCrunch.

It’s almost as if the SXSW tweeters forgot that public transit exists. As Henry Grabar pointed out at Slate, five years after the launch of Uber, it remains a largely elite service. As of last year, only 15 percent of Americans had ever used a ride-hailing app.

“Honestly, it’s entitled tech bros. It’s hard to feel too bad for them that they’ve come to view Uber as a utility, when it doesn’t need to be, and it wasn’t for years,” says John Laycock, a local resident and member of AURA, an organization that advocates for an inclusive Austin. The group put out a public transit vision for the city the same month Uber and Lyft pulled out last year. It doesn’t include anything about ride-hailing apps, but it does acknowledge that Austin’s current system is lacking. Ridership plummeted 12 percent just last year.

Laycock says that’s partially bad service and partially perception.

“If you’re not in a train you don’t think of yourself as being in good public transportation,” he says. Austin has just one commuter rail line and a bevy of inefficient bus routes. Laycock intentionally chose to live off the rail line, and utilizes a combination of apps to figure out where his bus stops are and when the next vehicle is arriving. A bus trip is just $1.25, but it’s not the fastest or most direct way to get around.

“If you’re used to Uber and have the money to spend on Uber, I can see you not wanting to deal with that,” he says. But he also acknowledges, “the same things that are keeping the tech bros from riding the bus” — a complicated system with lots of transfers, for example — “are the same things keeping local people from riding the bus.”

While the tweeters placed the onus on Fasten and RideAustin to prove they can handle volume, Laycock hopes that by this time next year, Capital Metro will have implemented its plan to retire some winding, low-ridership routes and combine others into more efficient lines with service every 15 minutes. The tech community could even help, he suggests, by developing more user-friendly transit apps. (Many code-savvy “hacktivists” do this in cities across U.S.) But what, then I asked, will the bros complain about next year?

“I’m sure they’d find something,” says Laycock.